Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World, 1690–1850

Detail of Three Women Playing Musical Instruments by Katsushika Ôi on view in Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World, 1690–1850

Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World, 1690–1850

February 11, 2007 to April 29, 2007

The first exhibition to highlight the world’s largest and finest collection of Japanese ukiyo-e paintings was on view at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth from February 11 to April 29, 2007. Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World, 1690–1850 was drawn from the unrivaled holdings of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and featured 67 masterpieces by such renowned artists as Hokusai, Utamaro, and Harunobu, illustrating the so-called “floating world”—the pleasure quarters of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), which were frequented by actors, courtesans, rich patrons, and bohemians. While many of these artists are well known in the West for their woodblock prints, the unique, custom-made paintings they produced are far more rare. These exquisite paintings depict elegant interiors with beautifully dressed courtesans, expressive portraits of Kabuki actors, and large screens that vividly illustrate the varied activities and denizens of the pleasure quarters, as well as contemporary life in Edo. Most of the paintings in the exhibition were being shown for the first time, giving museum visitors an unprecedented opportunity to view these intriguing works.

Commented Dr. Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, “These wonderfully colorful and decorative paintings of Japanese beauties and their sumptuous surroundings are a revelation to those who know ukiyo-e only from the smaller woodblock prints that they inspired. The full-scale original works have an extraordinary aesthetic refinement that transcends the usual barriers between “Western” and “Oriental” art. Indeed, it was images of the “floating world” that had such a profound effect upon European artists of the later 19th century like van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Monet, who admired and imitated their vibrant colors, sensuous patterns, and non-representational space.”

With the establishment of Edo as the major political and commercial center of Japan in the 17th century, a new genre of painting called ukiyo-e developed. Masters of ukiyo-e painting explored the daily activities of the city’s inhabitants and detailed the stylish preoccupations of the world of the theaters and the pleasure quarters. Generally commissioned by wealthy merchants, samurai families, and even members of the imperial family, the paintings in Drama and Desire explore the unique style and splendor of an art that celebrates one of the most alluring aspects of Japanese culture.

The exhibition traced the development of ukiyo-e painting from its creation in the late 17th century to the later schools of the mid-19th century. The works are executed in surprisingly diverse formats—scrolls, screens, banners, theatrical signs, and even lanterns. Drama and Desire presented images of sumptuously clad courtesans in brilliantly colored and boldly patterned robes, dynamic Kabuki actors in their finery, and panoramic genre screens that capture the beauty and vitality of Edo. Included were some of the Boston collection’s rarest works, such as Scenes from the Nakamura Kabuki Theater and the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter by the pioneer ukiyo-e artist Hishikawa Moronobu, and Picking Herbs on the Banks of the Sumida River, one of only eight paintings by renowned artist Suzuki Harunobu. The exhibition also featured paintings by two of the most admired ukiyo-e artists in the world, Torii Kiyonaga and Kitagawa Utamaro, whose depictions of elegant and sensuous beauties are considered to be the pinnacle of ukiyo-e.

Drama and Desire ended with works by perhaps the most recognized name in the world of ukiyo-e—Katsushika Hokusai—whose career spanned 70 years. Today he is celebrated for his landscape prints, in particular the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. However, Hokusai also painted images of beautiful women and constantly experimented with and established new styles. In addition to the standard scroll format, he decorated everyday articles such as banners, lanterns, and festival floats. Covering a span of 150 years, Drama and Desire provided an unparalleled overview of these captivating works.

In the mid-19th century, contemporary European and American connoisseurs were eager to form extensive collections of ukiyo-e, but their access was primarily limited to woodblock prints. The costly, individualized paintings of the type displayed in Drama and Desire were rare outside Japan. In light of this, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is particularly fortunate to have amassed the most comprehensive collection of these important paintings. Largely acquired through the efforts of Boston physician William Sturgis Bigelow (1850-1926) during his residence in Japan in the 1880s, the museum’s holdings of ukiyo-e paintings number over 700. Included are superb paintings by all of the major masters from the 17th through the mid-19th centuries.

In 1996–97, the curatorial staff in Japanese art at the museum collaborated with a team of Japanese scholars in cataloguing the institution’s holdings of ukiyo-e paintings for the first time. Such an evaluation of the collection had not been conducted since the early-20th-century tenure of Okakura Kakuzo, curator of Japanese art from 1904 to 1913. With the completion of the project, the Boston collection of ukiyo-e painting was declared to be the finest anywhere in the world. So important was this cataloguing project, the scholars who participated in the survey stated, “The results [necessitate] a rethinking of Japanese art history.” After 10 years of research, conservation, and planning, the museum finally brought a selection of the highlights of this unparalleled collection to museum visitors worldwide.

An inaugural lecture by Anne Nishimura Morse, curator of Japanese art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and curator of Drama and Desire took place on Saturday, February 10, 2007, at 10:30 a.m. in the Museum auditorium. “The Allure of the Floating World: Images of Courtesans and Geishas” was free and open to the public.

A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was available in the Museum Shop ($55 hardcover; $37.50 softcover). Edited by Anne Nishimura Morse, Curator of Japanese Art: Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the publication features essays by leading Japanese art scholars.

Admission prices for the exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum were $9 for adults, $7 for seniors age 60 and over and students with ID, and $5 for children between 6 and 11. Children under 6 were free, as were museum members. An Acoustiguide audio tour was included in the ticket price. Members could purchase an audio tour for $3. Admission prices were half-off on Tuesdays (not applicable for Member audio tours).

Drama and Desire was previously seen in Japan (under the exhibition title The Allure of Edo: Ukiyo-e Painting from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) at Kobe City Museum (April 25–May 28, 2006); Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts (June 17–August 27, 2006); and Edo-Tokyo Museum (October 21–December 10, 2006). The Kimbell was its first North American venue, following which it was presented at the Royal Ontario Museum (May 18–August 12, 2007); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (August 27–December 16, 2007); and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World, 1690–1850 was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and was made possible by Fidelity Investments through the Fidelity Foundation.

Caption: Katsushika Ôi, Three Women Playing Musical Instruments (detail), Japan, Edo period, c. 1818–44, hanging scroll; ink and color on silk. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. William Sturgis Bigelow Collection